Teaching Composing in the Classroom

My own composing efforts began during my middle-school band classes in the early 1960s. Along with many other youngsters, I was given classes with a young composer named R. Murray Schafer, who documented our experiences and conversations in The composer in the classroom (1965). Here is a follow-up documentary of a similar program that Schafer offered in 1969 in a 7th grade classroom in Canada.

Although I was not aware of “democratic teaching-learning principles” then, this is what Schafer modeled (see, too, Schafer’s thoughts from 2006).

But he was not unique, by any means. Composing and arranging projects, with mutual teacher-learner respect, and dialogues, were also regular parts of my secondary school curricula (1963-1967), punctuated with occasional visits by professional composers.

What I valued then, and what I advocate and teach now, is that to learn composing effectively, intelligently, and joyfully, students need continuous opportunities to interact with their peers as fellow music makers and listeners, and to hear their efforts interpreted and performed musically (not merely “produced”).

In addition, Music Matters emphasizes opportunity-finding and formulating, rather than just carrying out musical assignments. By this I mean encouraging students to research and generate their own innovative pieces to perform on their own, or in peer ensembles; generate multiple approaches to interpretive, improvisational, and/or compositional problems; plan innovative interpretations; generate plans and sketches of musical arrangements; edit given compositions or arrangements—all of these in continuous relation to music listening so that students gain understandings of the style frameworks in which they are creating or “crossing over.” All of this can be done in relation to composing pieces about important moral, political, and ethical problems in students’ lives and in our contemporary world. Doing so is common in visual art and English literature classes where students create paintings, poems, and stories for these same reasons. I suggest that all these strategies align with James Mursell’s concept of democratic teaching and teaching for democratic citizenship.

Music education for musical creativity requires sustained periods for students to generate, select ideas, rework, and edit their interpretations and arrangements. During these processes, I state that we need to avoid undermining our students’ motivation, thinking, and enjoyment by gushing-over, hovering-over, or taking-over while students work at producing creative musical results. I state that guiding students toward creative achievements calls for a music teacher-as-coach, advisor, and informed critic; not teacher-as-proud-mother, stern father, or “know-it-all big brother.”

Teaching musical composition and creativity is worth doing for the sake of the self and others. As we say in Music Matters:

The internal goods and values of musicing are not abstractions. Through the progressive development of musical understanding with musical and educative teachers and facilitators, all students can achieve human flourishing, communal well-being, an empathetic sense of self-and-other, as well as a sense of meaningfulness, enjoyment, and a creative way of life.

Musical Identities

Many kind thanks to Raymond MacDonaldDavid J. Hargreaves, and Dorothy Miell for including us in your recent volume, Handbook of Musical Identities.

There, we argue that explanations of why and how music making and listening contribute to many kinds of identity formation—including musical, personal, social, cultural, gendered, and ethical identity development—should begin with a concept of personhood. In other words, selfhood and personal identity are not identical with personhood, but primary dimensions of it. Part one of our chapter presents an embodied-enactive concept of personhood. Part two provides philosophical arguments that support our concept of personhood and explain the roles of empathy, ethical idealization, and moral communities in the co-construction of personhood, musical identities, and musical experiences. And part three knits parts one and two together by offering reasons why music making, listening, and musical praxes can serve as “affordances” for lifelong experiences of identity formation and “full human flourishing,” or eudaimonia.

 

Inspiration and Joy Through the Arts

Diane Ravitch is an eminent Research Professor of Education at New York University, a prolific author, and one of the strongest voices in the world for the importance of public education. As she’s told David personally, as she’s said in numerous media interviews and speeches, and in her writings, Ravitch fully supports the enormous importance of arts in education, especially music.

Today—Valentine’s Day, 2017—her blog reminds us that, in the midst of stressful and dangerous times, we must find ways to engage our children in joyful and loving experiences. Music can do this! Indeed, thousands of music educators worldwide make this happen, in a wide range of ways, with and for their students.

School lunch and music

Ravitch gives an example. A couple of years ago, the school administrators at a Bucks primary school in the United Kingdom staged a surprise opera “intervention” during the children’s lunch time. Suddenly, the children were being serenaded with the arias of Verdi, Rossini and Puccini!

As a result of this experience, teacher Rozalyn Thomson said: “Mamma Mia! What an experience for the children! They loved the singing, they loved the surprise and they loved the pesto pasta! Next best thing to Covent Garden – they all want to be opera singers now!”

 

Stand Up for Public School Music

Today the US Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as the new Secretary of Education. Many educational experts, teachers, and parents believe, with good reasons, that DeVos represents a serious threat to the future of American public education, and, therefore, a threat to American public school music.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR’s lead education blogger, asks: “Now, the question is: How much will actually change for the nation’s 50 million public school students and 20 million college students? Perhaps her opponents should take a deep breath. The federal role in education policy is limited. Less than 10 percent of funding for K-12 schools comes from the feds, for example.” Then again, says Kamenetz, “DeVos’ department may take a leaf from Arne Duncan‘s book and set up a competitive grant program that encourages states to expand school choice. If so, we’ll likely be hearing more about the benefits of private, virtual, religious and for-profit schools.”

Dr. David E. Kirkland, professor of education at NYU-Steinhardt, says that he fears “she could badly hurt public education across the country and pull resources out of schools in need of federal funding. Her extensive conflicts of interest and record of diverting money away from vulnerable students and into the pockets of the rich make DeVos completely unfit for the position she was just confirmed to.”

What can music educators do? As Diane Ravitch says: “We are many. They are few. We will organize, mobilize and fight their attacks on our children, our educators, and our public schools. Together, we are powerful.” We’re not alone. Note this well: “The senators who opposed DeVos represent 36 million more people than her supporters.

Indeed, anyone who is afraid for the future of music education should do everything possible to RESIST. Public education is a matter of fundamental human and civil rights. We must find the energy to protest and be more proactive than ever! We must keep hope alive for our students, colleagues, and our profession.

Additionally, we must become more informed about daily and long-term efforts on behalf of public education. For example, subscribe to Diane Ravitch’s blog. Join and follow the Badass Teachers Association on Facebook. Join forces with The Network for Public Education (NPE). Follow Truthout for penetrating discussions of why and what is happening. We’re not alone!

Again: As Carol Burris of NPE said today

the opposition that the American public helped generate was so intense, that the Vice President had to step in to break the tie in order for her to be confirmed. Forty-eight senators held the floor throughout the afternoon and night, delaying the vote as long as they could. Your opposition to what DeVos stands for was nothing short of remarkable. Because of you, NPE generated a half million emails to senators. Over 100,000 also accessed our Toolkit and HELP committee lists—making phone calls, sending faxes, and visiting offices. You contacted our office by mail and by phone asking, “What more can I do?”

See and follow the NPE site for answers. Don’t let DeVos win this fight. Protest her agenda.

As music educators, we need to think about our short-term and long-term aims. In the short-term, securing the place of music in public education depends on being able to understand, articulate, and affirm to ourselves and others that MUSICS matter. Many national sources exist to help us. One international source, which may be unfamiliar to US music educators, is here.

The future depends on making music education more musical, socially relevant, inclusive, welcoming, caring, ethical, creative, and “respecting and valuing multiple styles of learning and multiple ways of knowing.” We must continue to explore ways to make all forms of music making and listening, at all levels, more achievable, accessible, and applicable to all students.

In the long-term, we need to mobilize everyone—students, parents, colleagues, administrators, community members, politicians…EVERYONE—to support the many ways public schooling can contribute to the full human flourishing of every student.

Take Away Message

Today, Hannah Arendt’s wisdom takes on new meaning:

Public education is “where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them [via DeVos’ vouchers and charter schools] from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” ~Hannah Arendt, The Crisis of Education (1954)

9/11 and Musical Artivism

September 11, 2016.

Fifteen years ago today, a great tragedy swept the nation and rippled around the world. We take this occasion to pause and wonder: Can/should music educators, music students, and community musicians put their creativities to work—in small or larger ways—to commemorate this anniversary, inspire hope for a better world, and/or celebrate the valor of those who bravely serve to protect our communities and nations? If so, why? If not, why not? If so, in what ways?

  • Should students perform and listen to musics that have been created to address and resist political/social tragedies
  • Should students compose music—e.g., songs, rap verse, performance/art pieces—that support people’s social rights and challenge wrongs?
  • Should students arrange musics that were specifically composed as tributes to victims of 9/11 and other tragedies past and present—e.g., Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” or “The Empty Sky”; Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You”; The Beastie Boys “An Open Letter to NYC”; and Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll”?

As you weigh these questions, we leave you with a music video that “performs resistance” and may inspire hope among some listeners and music makers. It affirms that people can make music toward change.

The video is based, in part, on Bob Marley’s “War.” Marley composed  the song in 1976. The lyrics are nearly identical to the speech that Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie gave in 1963 at the United Nations General Assembly. It was the first time that a head of state spoke in the name of Africa at the U.N.  Selassie’s speech called for world peace.  Both Marley’s song and this video echo the need for world-wide positive change.

Maybe our music classrooms and musical communities can/should become—at appropriate times—sites of personal and social reflection and what we might call “artivism,” as practiced by amateur and professional artists in every domain.

5 Examples of Music for Humane Values

Music and music education can yield a wide variety of humane values, including the following:

1. Brass for Africa: Music can engage, empower, and repair.

2. The North Jersey Home School Association Chorale is an award-winning chorus directed by Beth Prins. Prins teaches music as a vehicle for “doing good” in the world. For example, as part of their schedule of events when touring France one summer, they performed at special-needs schools, private boarding schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and gave two charity concerts to raise money for the victims of a recent earthquake in Haiti. According to their personal testimonies, the singers make music for “civic goods.” In their minds, their voices embody their personal and collective sense of mutual care, community, and spirituality.

3. Jahmir Wallace and his trumpet provide a moving example of helping a person to make a life of personal and communal significance and meaningfulness.

4.  After graduating from the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, Mary Piercey chose to become a school and community music teacher in a small Inuit community on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the Region of Canada called Nunavut. When Piercey arrived in Arviat, it was an impoverished, hopeless, drug-infested wasteland.  To make a long story short, and largely because of Piercey’s skillful and imaginative use of musics in the service of social activism and artistic citizenship, the people and the traditional culture of Arviat and the surrounding region began to heal and blossom.

5. Performing, composing, and improvising music—among other musical engagements—can assist people with physical, psychological, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. One example of music making for well-being is found at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. In any given music therapy session at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter there is a revolving number of participants. While the unit usually consists of 30 men, the number of participants in any given session varies, depending on the men’s needs and desires. They are not forced to go to music therapy; they go because they want musical-communal interactions. The sessions focus on musical improvisation. Percussion and string instruments are placed in the center of a session room. When the men walk into a session, they are free to choose whatever instrument appeals to them on that given day. They sit down and, as they wait for the session to begin, they play their chosen instruments, reacquainting themselves with musical materials. Research supports the claim that the men experience transformative communal engagement, and a feeling of power and control over their own lives.

While some people may assume that the values experienced in each of these cases are extra-musical—values such as a sense of community, well-being, social healing, and spirituality—they are not. They are all MUSICAL values because they are products of personal and group music making and listening.

Distinguishing between “musical” and “extra-musical” values makes little sense. The eminent UCBerkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues that the musical/extra-musical divide yields more harm than good. He states: “music regarded as set off from the world is still in the world, doing worldly work…musical meaning [arises] out of relation between music and its many contexts.” To characterize these meanings (namely, all results from musical experiences) as “extra-musical” is as illogical as it is pretentious.

Relatedly, music education philosopher Wayne Bowman states that to distinguish between musical and extra-musical value misses the mark entirely. All values, states Bowman, are functions of “the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.” And whether or not music does achieve this potential depends on the ways it is experienced. We agree with Bowman when he says that music does not automatically “make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or better citizens.” It all depends. It depends on so many variables, too numerous to mention here.

Musics are a hub of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through music occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of music making and listening. In other words, “we make it true” that one or more musical values happen in/to us when we participate in musics.

Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! “Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these. We must use time creatively.”  Thank you, Dr. King.

10 works or composers I can’t live without

I’m not a tech-savvy person, so I don’t know why a tweet—“10 works or composers you never want to hear again”—from October 7, 2014 showed up on my twitter feed today. But it did. Norman Lebrecht, one of England’s most esteemed (and rightly so) music critics, replied with a list of the 10 works or composers he never wanted to hear again.

At first, I laughed. I scrolled down Lebrecht’s choices, and then I read most of the 150 comments. As I did, my laughter slowly morphed into something more distressing.

I started to feel hurt by some people’s choices. I went back to Lebrecht’s selection. How could he not want to hear Tchaikovsky’s music (except the last 3 symphonies and the violin concerto)? What’s wrong with Messiaen’s music? Bernstein’s Mass? And everything that Puccini created post-Bohème? Really? Is it because this music is overplayed? Badly interpreted? Or, in Lebrecht’s estimation, just poorly composed music?

Then I stepped back and asked myself, Why be bothered by this? I sat and thought about this for a while, and then I realized how and why this “game” turned into a stab in my heart. It wasn’t because I’m overly sensitive. It was because many of these pieces and composers are intimately sewn into the fabric of my personal and musical identities.

There’s a large amount of social and psychological research that examines why and how music and identity are deeply intertwined (see MM2, Chapters 3 and 5).

So part of my hurtful response to this “little game” has to do with my personal attachments and lifelong musical experiences with pieces, styles, and composers that are part of my-and most people’s- emotional, everyday, and autobiographical narratives.

By way of an olive branch, and because I don’t want to seem like a “bad sport,” let’s change the game. I’ll start. Here’s my list of the “10 works or composers I can’t live without”—at least for today. Ask me tomorrow and my list might change.

  1. Mahler’s Song of the earth
  2. Debussy
  3. Bill Evans’s “Some Other Time”
  4. Van Morrison
  5. Prokofiev’s Cinderella
  6. Brahms Ballades Op. 10
  7. While not a composer or specific work, EVERYTHING Jordi Savall performs
  8. Cole Porter
  9. Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (Headhunters)
  10. Schubert’s “Swan song”

What’s your list of the 10 works or composers you can’t live without?

5 reasons to advocate carefully for music education

Peter Greene’s blog post—Stop “Defending” Music Education (6/11/2015)—has been floating in the blogosphere for a long time. Some people “Like it,” others don’t, and some don’t read it carefully.

The gist of Greene’s argument is not that music educators should stop defending music education. He’s arguing that we should stop defending what we do by “touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter.” In the end, says Greene: Don’t advocate like this!

We agree—which doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says in his blog. Some of his points are right on target, but some need deeper probing.

For now, we’ll spotlight 5 issues and/or mistakes that some music educators overlook when they automatically believe “pop” advocacy claims and/or disagree with Greene’s main point. But before explaining these issues, let’s review some obvious points.

In American schooling, literacy and numeracy, and standardized tests of math and reading, are highly valued, very often at the expense of other aspects of education. The message that some music teachers take from these facts is that if we want our music programs to survive, then we should surrender to educational policymakers, which means telling parents and administrators what they want to hear (“whatever works”) like “music raises math and reading scores,” “music boosts the brain,” or any other non-musical “added-value gains.” So, many music teachers use the “whatever works” strategy to support and save their music programs.

We understand why teachers feel this way, but we don’t support these assumptions and actions. Here’s why:

1. There is NOT a critical mass of excellent research that supports claims that music raises math and reading scores, or that music boosts the brain, etc. Scholars who’ve studied possible links between music and different forms of cognitive achievement for 20, or 30+ years haven’t developed anything approaching a consensus on these issues.

So if you’re a teacher who makes “added-value” claims, be ready for one of two results:

(a) Someday, a parent or administrator will challenge you to produce solid evidence to support your claims. If you haven’t spent a lot of time studying research, good luck defending your claims. If you have, you’ll find out that nobody knows for sure—not even close.

(b) Someday, an administrator might believe you when you say that music raises math and reading test scores. If so, s/he may start evaluating your music students based on their math and reading scores, not on their musical achievements. And s/he will start evaluating you on your students’ scores.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we have many school music-teacher colleagues in New York City and beyond who are being assessed on their students’ test scores in math and reading, and so are their students. If you decide to defend your music program with empty claims about the non-musical benefits of music, this could easily “kill the music” in your music program.

So let’s be very careful what we claim and wish for, which is Peter Greene’s point, too. Claiming that music “makes students smarter,” or better at math or literacy, could produce negative outcomes for music teachers.

2. A big issue many teachers fail to think about is this: What do advocates mean when they say “music” raises math and reading scores, or “music” boosts your brain? Do they mean Jay Z’s hip-hop music boosts your brain? Or do they mean West African drumming, Philip Glass’s minimalist’s pieces, or Shakuhachi flute playing increase cognitive functioning? Maybe they mean that kids who play Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band—or Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, or sing “O Music, Sweet Music,” or play “Twinkle, Twinkle”—will get better math scores. Or maybe they mean kids will develop better language skills if they listen to Taylor Swift’s songs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Music” is hugely varied, which is another reason why researchers don’t know whether or not “music” has specific non-musical benefits.

For example, is there any solid research that demonstrates there is a one-to-one causal relationship between playing or listening to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and (a) a significant increase in (say) all 8-year-old boys’ math scores in Los Angeles (or any place), or (b) marginal improvements in all adolescents’ listening abilities in Harlem, or anywhere else? No. There is absolutely no valid and reliable research that indicates or “proves” any such claims. If you don’t believe us, read these researchers, who’ve spent their lives studying such things: Glenn Schellenberg, Ellen Winner, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

3. The eminent British music scholar Susan Hallam also questions the relationship between music and mathematical abilities. She asks: What math? All math? Specific mathematical principles? Geometry? Calculus?

4. One variable that people tend to omit when they talk about “music and the brain,” or “music raises academic scores,” is that TEACHERS play a huge role in whether or not music students succeed musically, or whether music motivates them to achieve more in school and life. A great—an effective, educative, and ethical—teacher, who is also musical, may improve students’ lives. But s/he can’t claim that there’s a causal relationship between her music teaching and better academic achievement because there’s far too many variables involved in students’ lives.

5. Do you = your brain? No. Do scientists know everything there is to know about the human brain? No.

Neuroscientists aren’t even close to understanding everything about the brain. Scientists’ current knowledge of the brain is extremely incomplete. Imagine that the brain = Mt. Everest. From this perspective, the majority of scientists argue that our present understanding of the brain is only in the foothills of Everest. Scholars aren’t even close to the summit.

As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains, the brain “is the most complexly organized structure in the universe.” The brain contains 100 billion nerve cells or “neurons” that engage in “something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons” all the time, which means the brain is entirely capable of making and maintaining about 100 trillion synaptical connections. Stated another way, “the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity … exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe.”

If each person is unique, and if it’s true that the current population of our planet is about 7 billion people, is it likely that today’s scientists know enough about the brain to be sure that every American adolescent hears, feels, interprets, and values Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, or “If I Had Hammer,” in the same way? No.

Takeaway message: The next time you read an advocacy blog that says music boots the brain, or that music is good because it stimulates the right brain, or music increases math or literacy skills, it’s nonsense. Music is processed throughout the brain, the body, and the mind. Our experiences of music making and listening result from our unique conscious (and nonconscious) interactions with the world. Such interactions are extremely complex.

Summing up, scientists simply don’t know exactly how the brain functions. Accordingly, it’s dangerous to advocate for music education using music-and-math, and music-and-brain claims. However, we do know why music is valuable for its own sake—for the “goods” of actively engaging in music making and listening, as we explain in MM2 and elsewhere.